Today, women are no longer invisible, nor are they obliged to stand 'behind' great men. These days, there are great women who are visible.
It is time we dropped the phrase ‘behind every great man, there’s a great woman.’
In his week’s edition is a feature on the invisible women who have stood behind some of history’s most visible men. But today, women are no longer invisible, nor are they obliged to stand ‘behind’ great men. These days, there are great women who are visible.
The old adage stems from a very different time. Historians believe that the phrase was born out of the feminist movement that swept across the US in the 1940s.
At the time, it was used in an attempt to give recognition to the wives and other female figures that contributed to the lives of successful men, and, by extension, to the nation. It is the same idea that gave rise to the famous wartime ‘Rosie the Riveter’ character – that without women, men could not do their duty.
Saying that a woman stands ‘behind’ a man’s success is both patronising and self-defeating
Although well meaning, looking back, it is not hard to see that saying that a woman stands ‘behind’ a man’s success is both patronising and self-defeating. These statements have no place in the world if we ever hope to progress to a gender-equal and gender-neutral society with equal opportunities available to all. Women neither need – nor want – to stand behind anyone.
For too long, women like Jane Hawking, the wife of late British physicist Stephen Hawking, sacrificed their own identity and career to support that of their husbands.
Hawking’s case is particularly galling. At just 21-years old, the newlyweds got on a plane to America to spend their honeymoon at a physics conference. In the decades that followed, she served as her husband’s primary caregiver during his long struggle with motor neuron disease. In an interview at the recent Emirates Literature festival in Dubai, she recalled going through many instances in which her own personality was “suppressed”.
“I think there are a lot of women in that situation,” she recalls. “I think in this day and age, it’s actually possible for women to have a career of their own and they shouldn’t lose sight of their own potential and creativity…everybody is equal. You don’t put the scientist, the great writer, the great playwright, the great actor, on a pedestal.”
Unfortunately, Hawking is not the only example of a great woman who has been largely overlooked over the years. Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mitza Maric, was one of the world’s top female physicists. Walt Disney’s wife, Lillian, is the woman who gave ‘Mickey’ Mouse his name. Zelda La Grange, Nelson Mandela’s long-time personal secretary, Zelda La Grange, was so important to the world leader that many dubbed her his ‘right hand woman’.
Women neither need – nor want – to stand behind anyone.
For a more recent example, one need look no further than Michelle Obama, the Harvard-educated lawyer who gave up her much loved – and prestigious – job at the Chicago Medical Centre to support Barack’s political campaign. During his eight years in the Oval Office, her career remained an after-thought. Although an important national figure in her own right, in the minds of far too many people, she will likely always be remembered as the First Lady.
To be clear, we ourselves are at fault. Our lists, such as the 100 most influential Arabs or “30 under 30”, are overwhelmingly comprised of men. Things need not stay this way. As Zelda La Grange said in her interview, “change is possible, and complete and utter metamorphosis of one’s own thinking.”
In our case, this means dropping the idea that women stand ‘behind’ men and recognising them for what they are – great people in their own right. But to change – we’ll need your help. If you know of a woman – or women – that deserve to be recognised, we at Arabian Business want to hear from you. Together, we can shed light on some of the unsung women that make this region what it is today.